This article by Isa Clee was first published on the Sustainability and Environmental Education (SEEd) website.
On the morning of Friday 14th February, I set off for the Freedom Arch in Stroud to join the Youth4Climate school strikers. It’s been a full year since they first walked out of their classrooms to strike on behalf of the planet and I wanted to speak to them about their drive to continue and whether their needs are being met and supported in their places of learning.
As I approached the now well established meeting point, the sound of the Samba band greeted me with a friendly carnival atmosphere. Spirits were good and there was a sense of excitement as the crowd of young people and supportive adults grew. The young people arrived in their uniforms, carrying handmade placards. They are determined and driven by the need to see fundamental changes to the way we humans interact with the world around us. It’s clear from the gathering however, that whilst a strong camaraderie and vision brings these determined young people together, there is a growing sense of frustration that their voices are not being heard by the powers that be.
These young people are intelligent, articulate and extremely well informed about the scientific evidence surrounding climate breakdown and biodiversity loss. They also have a strong need to see immediate positive action. ‘System change not climate change’ rings out the chant as we march. The piece of the puzzle they are missing is the power to make the wide system changes required and the knowledge about how this is to be achieved. The future looks uncertain and bleak to them and they are crying out for leaders around the world to make the right choices to create a sustainable way of living.
I spoke to a number of young people during the strike and asked them what they say to people who criticize them for not being in school. Overwhelmingly their responses were that striking from school for climate justice is more important than their educations during this time of crisis. One young student stated, ‘While we’re in school we’re getting an education, but our education’s not going to do much for our future if we don’t have a future.’ Another commented ‘Actually it’s my future and striking is something I want to do. I think it’s more important than my education, and I will catch up because I’m passionate about doing well at school. I’m in my GCSE year and I want to get good GCSE’s, but I think this is more important at the moment.’
When I asked about their visions for the future, their answers were less certain. One 14 year old student replied, ‘That’s a difficult question because all I see is darkness. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m not very scientific’. Another said ‘We’re not being told the extent of what’s going on. They’re just saying that there is a change in the climate but they’re not telling us what we should do to stop it and what is actually happening. It is happening and they’re not telling us how to prevent it.’
For many of these young people their sense of powerlessness comes from the certainty that climate change is a genuine threat, but also the knowledge that they are not being given the tools or skills to make the necessary global system changes. They are aware that the planet is changing fast, and they want their education to reflect that. One 16 year old commented ‘There are still people in our school that don’t really know anything about it, and I think that’s really bad, I mean the school ought to be telling us about it. We had one assembly on it, but it really wasn’t much and that’s not enough.’
There was also talk of eco-anxiety, a term increasingly heard in relation to feelings about the state of the world. One supportive adult stood up and reassured the young people that it was alright to feel anxious and they were not alone. But the question arises, is it right that these amazing, engaged young people should be holding the responsibility of pushing for positive change? As Greta Thunberg says, ‘World leaders are behaving like children, so it falls on us to be the adults in the room. It should not be this way.’
I grew up in a generation under the threat of the cold war and nuclear destruction. It was a terrifying prospect, and I attended many CND demonstrations in efforts to ban the bomb. There are similarities to be seen here with young people fearful for their futures and fighting for change. The big difference is that for these young people they feel that the bomb has already gone off and all they can do is fight fires.
So what can we adults and educators do to help support our young people as they move into the future? In February the ‘Teach the Future’ campaign borne out of the Youth4Climate strike movement, presented the first ever youth-led education bill to parliament. In it they propose to repurpose the entire education system around the climate emergency and ecological crisis. It is also calling for climate education to be part of teacher training as 75% of teachers say they haven’t received the right training to teach environmental issues, and for all state-funded educational buildings be net zero by 2030. As long-term campaigners and practitioners in Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) and the Whole School Approach to Sustainability, this is something that we at SEEd wholeheartedly support.
As we move forward into an uncertain future, one thing’s for sure; these young people are the leaders and changemakers of the future. Through learning together for sustainability, we can equip future generations with the right skills to build the new, fairer and ecologically sustainable systems the world needs.
SEEd Website: https://se-ed.co.uk/edu/